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The Discovery of Man
by Swami Krishnananda

(Taken from the January 1974 issue of the Divine Life magazine)

The sense of possession and self-preservation may be said to form the central urge of human nature. This pivotal and irresistible tendency takes several shapes in the various enterprises and activities of mankind, such as the different embarkments in the fields of the social and political complex, as well as in the personal engagements of every individual. The basic demands of the human constitution cannot really be said to have any rational foundation; in fact, all rationality seems to be intended only to justify and substantiate these fundamental calls of the human constitution, which defy the searching eyes of reason and logic.

The pressure that is felt from within as the need for the preservation and the reproduction of the human individuality—the love of beauty and the longing to be in the society of kindred species, the fear of death and an anxiety about the unknown future—are some of the mysterious essentialities of the structural set-up of man, which do not call for any rational proof of either their existence or their validity. Man has been taking all these things for granted and basing all his endeavours on these 'instinctive' urges, though he would not be prepared to regard them as mere instincts in the ordinary sense of the term, for human nature has always been identified with what is known as Homo sapiens, far superior to the animal and the vegetable kingdoms of living beings.

But, the foundational meaning behind these non-rational tendencies in human beings has a super-rational root, which always eludes the grasp of understanding. The human intellect is structurally so constituted that its inner pith, known as the reason, functions in strict accordance with a self-made system known as a 'scientific procedure' and a 'logical method'. Both science and logic, however, can themselves be proved to be neither scientific nor logical, for to base any argument or to hold any position on an unproved hypothesis is contrary to what would be expected of a scientific and logical approach to anything. While science takes for granted that the world outside and the human body do exist, and that the sense-organs through which scientific observations are made are wholly reliable—a very unscientific attitude indeed—logic works on the assumption that the subject and the predicate of a proposition are disjointed elements to be dovetailed by a statement or judgment. The difference between the principles of subject and predicate is an unproved hypothesis, for it is the very basis of thought itself. The conditioning categories of quantity, quality, relation and modality in a logical judgment are the very presuppositions of the thinking process of the mind.

With these hampering restrictions does thought operate even in such exact and abstract functions of the mind such as mathematics, physics and logic. The fate of other branches of learning needs no mention. And, yet, thought is audacious enough to put on the air of science and non-dogmatic thinking, not knowing that the belief in the existence of a world of objects and of one's own bodily personality is itself a dogma, not argued out by any scientific deduction.

The reason for this difficulty of not being able to avoid the presence of certain basic urges and values presupposing every form of thought-function is that the nature of existence, unfortunately, seems to transcend the operative field of human thought. Since the pattern of existence controls and regulates every thought and every action, and it stands above the ken of all human faculties, life has ever remained an unsolved mystery to man's aspirations and efforts. Humanity has been floundering every time even in its so-called dexterous moves and manoeuvres through the passage of world-history, and history has been nothing but a long tale of progressions and retrogressions, of reprisals and anxieties, tensions and conflicts, wars and destructions on the surface of Nature, all having proceeded from man's assumption of understanding the laws of Nature and of human society, which only demonstrated his folly and pretention to knowledge. Even today, towards the fag-end of the twentieth century, the problems of man are the same as those of the most ancient times, for man has not changed in his essential makeup although the historical stride has marched through the passage of unrelenting time. Today we see private meetings and public conferences, secret deliberations and open plans and schemes launched upon by people in the social and political levels of life, and in the name of organised religions and communal creeds, all purporting to be aiming at individual and collective good. But man is man, and he cannot become different from what he is; his success or failure obviously hangs on his knowledge of the nature of the world in which he is inextricably involved. But we have already seen what knowledge he possesses in respect to the environment in which he lives.

What, then, is the remedy? Where is the hope for man? It is nowhere except in an honest search for true knowledge of the real nature of things, which is at once man's ultimate being. True knowledge never seems to have been obtained, and mankind has never succeeded finally in any of its efforts. All this, because the nature of things is hiddenly involved in the constitutional pattern of man himself, and vice versa, so that nothing can be known in its ultimate setup without man's knowing himself. The world is not really an object of the senses of man, and they do not stand entirely outside the operational field of the human mind. The structure of the objects of sense and that of the senses themselves is a uniformly laid-out network of forces, called in philosophical Sanskrit as the gunassattva, rajas and tamas—which simply mean the equilibrated, distracted and inert condition of the energies of the universe. Such is the foundational structure of man and his vast environment of physical, vital, mental, intellectual and even moral levels. This amounts to saying that a correct knowledge of the world and of the universe is impossible without the knowledge of one's own self. Well has the great poet said, “The proper study of mankind is man.” Friction, conflict and defeat, experiment, suffering and pain, whether personally in the individual or outside socially, are evidently born of a lack of self-knowledge in man. While man parades his knowledge of Nature, of society, of the sun, moon and stars and the way of their working, he does not know that he is ruling in a fool's paradise, and his knowledge is only for his doom, which is pursuing him like a ghost from behind.

But why does not man strive to have knowledge of his own self, if this is an indispensable condition of all right knowledge? This he cannot do easily, as one cannot see one's own back or one's own eyes, climb on one's own shoulders, and the like. The Self cannot be known, for it is not meant to be known. The Self is the knower. “Who can know the knower?” says Sage Yajnavalkya of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad fame. This status of the self has led certain Western thinkers such as Kant to hold that it cannot be known, or, perhaps, as Hume would tell us, that it does not exist at all. The usual knowledge process is inapplicable in the unique method of attaining Self-knowledge. “Some look upon this as a wonder; some others speak of it as a wonder; certain others hear of it as a wonder; but even having heard of it, no one really knows it,” says the Bhagavadgita. “Even the chance to hear of it is not available to many, and even when it is heard of, no one really understands it. Marvellous is the teacher of it, wondrous is the receiver of it; a wonder, indeed, is the knower of it, taught by an expert teacher,” says the Kathopanishad.

Yet, there is a way. The Upanishads have held aloft the banner of this wisdom, and they truly represent the zenith of the culture that mankind has ever reached. We are told in the Chhandogya Upanishad that six learned men, all well versed in scriptural lore, great scholars, but with no peace of mind, which harassed them due to there having been an intrinsic 'something' which they seemed to lack, approached King Asvapati Kaikeya for initiation into the knowledge of the Self. It is but natural that anyone who hears of the term 'Self' will take it to mean some internal kernel situated inside the body of man, like a seed inside the fruit. This was precisely the mistake which did not appear to have spared even these learned men, and which Asvapati strongly refuted with his definition of the Self, which made the scholars aghast and stunned. As a preparatory formality to the sublime initiation, Asvapati queried each one of them as to what his concept of Reality was, and on what he was meditating. Everyone expounded his notion of Reality and the way of his meditation on it. Each one held that some sort of thing, this or that, was the object of his meditation, having identified that particular thing with Reality.

Having heard these definitions, all sincerely held indeed, but nevertheless all thoroughly mistaken, Asvapati expressed surprise that they were alive at all after having committed such blunders in their meditations. The generous Asvapati, however, condescendingly remarked that, as all forms of honestly conducted meditations lead to some intensified kind of result, each one of the disciples looked materially prosperous and well off in the popular social sense but that any further persistence in such erroneous meditations would have made them lose their limbs and brought upon them a catastrophe, had they not come to him for advice, which, fortunately, happened in due time. The errors of their meditation consisted, according to Asvapati, in two fundamental notions which they held: that Reality is outside one's consciousness, and that Reality is somewhere in space. This is, normally, the mistake of almost every student of yoga on the path of meditation, everyone seeming to think in the same way as the scholars thought. The result of such an error in thinking is an unnecessary strain and tension of the mind, creating an unnatural condition in one's own personality and around oneself in society. Asvapati rose up to the occasion and defined Reality in the most comprehensive manner: Reality is neither outside nor in any one place, for it is characterised by two factors: Universality and Selfhood. This awe-inspiring definition is expressed in a pithy statement of only two words in the Upanishad: Vaisvanara and Abhivimana, about whose meaning commentators have racked their brains since centuries. But, what is Universality, and what is Selfhood?

The Universal is an epithet we use to designate that which comprehends all particulars within it in a very unique manner, for the Universal is said to not merely include the particulars but to be wholly present in each one of the particulars within it, something like the entire signification of one's total personality being present and operative in each cell of the body, apart from the accepted fact that the body includes all the cells. Yet, the analogy is incomplete, for the relation of the particular to the Universal is much more meaningful and suggestive than the relationship of the cell to the body. The universal is not merely a total of the particulars, as the life principle in the body is much more than merely the total of the cells in the body. The only thinker in the West who struggled to approximate, though very inadequately, to this marvellous concept of the Universal was Hegel, the German philosopher, whose rational conclusions in this respect his followers, known as the Neo-Hegelians, attempted to amplify and raise to the status of a grand edifice of philosophic endeavour. The great Hegel and even his able disciples suffered, however, on account of an inability to give up the concept of difference, of change and evolution, even within the structure of Reality, a position which would defeat the very meaning of 'Universality'. The sages of the Upanishads, such as Asvapati and Yajnavalkya, stood boldly above this congenital prejudice of human thought and proclaimed that the Universal has naturally to be spaceless and thus free from all distinction and change within itself. This is as far as the concept of Universality is concerned.

But Universality is also Selfhood. This is something more difficult to stomach than even the notion of the Universal. What is Selfhood? The Self is a term applied to the pure subjectivity of Consciousness which refuses to be objectified or externalised in space and time in any way. If such a Selfhood is associated with Universality, what would be the nature of Reality? The human mind is not intended to conceive such a state of being. But this is what is usually known as God, or the Absolute. Asvapati introduced a consternating conviction into the minds of the learned scholars who came to him for initiation. And they were initiated!

If this is Reality, and this is Truth, and Truth alone triumphs (satyameva jayate), the reason for the failures of mankind in all its efforts—political, social and personal—is not far to seek. And the remedy for the troubles of humanity is, again, not difficult to understand. Will man gird up his loins and determine to introduce the principle of Reality, of Truth, into his daily efforts and activities? When this is done, all work becomes, in the language of the Bhagavadgita, a karma yoga. It is in this sense that we say that all life is really yoga. The Supreme Reality pervades, permeates and is present in everything. Nay, it is everything. All deeds are its deeds. Things exist because it is. We think because of its eternally vigilant intelligence. Our strivings for happiness assume meaning because it is infinite freedom and bliss.

The philosophy and psychology of education have to be grounded in this inescapable conclusion as to the nature of Reality. Else, education is bound to become a mockery and a wild-goose chase. Since our success in life depends upon the extent of the knowledge we have, and education is the process of the acquisition of knowledge, the human situation today calls for an immediate reorientation and revaluation in the curriculum of studies and the values treasured in the fields of education throughout the world. The methods hereof are obvious and self-explanatory.